When my four children went back to school in August 2021, my husband and I snapped first-day-of-school pictures alongside our kids. It was our first day kid-free since the pandemic began 17 months prior. We posed under our maple, giddy for a quiet home on workdays and ready to welcome the kids home after school finished up. Over the last several years, our family of six has weathered changing health mandates, online school, homeschool, a few job changes, and cross-country moves. Each shift in policy, culture, and church life has meant an adjustment of expectations. Each shift in season, in its own way, has been a gift.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Nearly two decades ago, with a Ph.D. underway and small children needing my constant attention, I often kicked against the goads of what Wendell Berry calls a “given life,” preferring instead to nostalgically look back or to dream about a future, imagined life. If my circumstances could just change, I thought — if the horizons of work, life, identity, and influence were unlimited — I’d surely be living the good life.
This “good life” we’re fed as part of the American Dream is one of upward mobility; it tells us that the way to preserve our freedom is to remain unattached and unconstrained. It has for its hero the myth of the American intrepid explorer, the one pulling up his bootstraps, plucking opportunity like heavy fruit from the vine. Today, that might look like finding security through bank accounts or social media followers, by staying “true to yourself,” where “you do you” works as long as the “you” in question agrees with the me in question. But the pursuit of this has left our social fabric frayed, our civility weak, our muscles of sympathy atrophied, and our Christian witness tarnished. When we value a life without limits, we effectively try to live as if we, not God, were god. But when we embrace our limits — whether unchangeable or seasonal — that is where we find the good life.
THE CREATION OF LIMITS
When God created the world, he created a world with limits. Limits are not a result of sin nor are they strictures meant to hold us back or dehumanize us. Limits are folded into the goodness of God’s generous creation. Creation itself — from growing plants to thriving families and cultures — shows us that limits are required for flourishing. Plants have seasons in which they grow and are harvested and seasons where they burrow deep and the ground lies fallow. Planets have orbits. The first created humans, Adam and Eve, were even limited — in place (to the Garden of Eden), in time, and in relation to one another (in a covenant between husband and wife) and God. All of these limits were set in place and remain in place to remind us that when we live within the limits of the Creator, life can flourish. Because the world he created was good.
With the serpent, sin entered the world and distorted God’s good limits with an empty promise of limitless knowledge and ability. Since then, we struggle to see the limits of our bodies, volition, vocation, or relationships as given from the hand of a loving, personal God who cares and tends to his created order. Instead, to us, limits have become something to pole vault over. So we pick and choose, and we retain only the ones to which we are willing to acquiesce. We do this because we forget that limits by their nature create the space for beauty, diversity, unique perspectives, personalities, skills, cultures. Instead of God as king, we enthrone ourselves. And a limitless life, we think, is our coronation ticket.
But we are reminded by Jesus — our God King who entered into the limits of space and time to show us again through his life, death, and resurrection — how to live a good life. Jesus, limitless himself, lived within the limits of the created world by choice. He limited himself in place, traveling by foot around Galilee. He limited himself by belonging to one ethnicity and religious culture, to one family and nation. His time, too, was limited, not just to 33 years, but in the way he spent his days — in the weekly rhythms of prayer, sleep, sabbath, and ordinary work. And ultimately, he limited himself for the sake of love, choosing to give up this life in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth.
THE GOODNESS OF LIMITED TIME
If limits are good — intended, even — then how might embracing them be the way forward in faith and practice, for our work, our worship, and even our parenting? Business gurus tout the idea of work-life balance as if we had multiple lives stacked like rocks on top of one another, as if the task were to get the “work” rock to balance upon the “life” rock. But living well is not necessarily about balancing work or the varied demands of life; instead, to live well is to accept the invitation to understand the limits of each of these things in our lives. And as Christians who inhabit fully orbed lives, we can think of the invitation to embrace our limitations as an invitation to name and tend to a particular season.
This stewardship language actually takes the pressure off. What we need isn’t limitlessness — in time nor in our ability to control it — what we need is appropriate limits. We don’t need more to make us happy; we need the right and proper affections.
As I consider my four children who are at home this summer, as well as my own work that needs doing, I can easily go into full-on logistics mode: planning activities, meals, chore charts, and finagling my to-do list to optimize my time. But before we solve the real issues of time management, care for the house and the cooking, for leisure and work, we must remember that what we can control is limited. Too often we skip right to the methodology and in so doing, we treat ourselves and our children as logistical problems to be solved. We dehumanize ourselves.
In this season, I simply have less time available for writing and research than I do in the fall during school hours. My family is limited in our budget as we consider the needs and desires of the six of us. But these are limits that, no matter my efforts to change them, I must accept. And if my family recognizes that each of these limits can be an invitation to press into what God has given us to work with and to enjoy in this season, we can also see more clearly a God who limits even himself for love. And we can see our limits as doorways, not walls to smash down.
The ways we choose to divvy up our days have ramifications. This is my season to steward well, with my two elementary-aged children and two teenagers under my roof. One day they will fly the nest and I will be welcomed into a new season, one that requires different muscles of restraint and one that comes with different invitations to love others and find goodness. For today, these particular limits are mine to embrace. I have the opportunity to practice being present to the situation at hand, the person at hand, the work at hand. It doesn’t solve the issue of what’s for dinner or the sibling bickering, but it does enable me to pray and to know in a visceral way that the God who limits himself to love his creation invites me to name my own limits and to press into the knowledge that nothing is wasted in God’s economy — even our limits.